For the time being, I am focusing my writing on my own (nonfiction) experiences as I learn to apply the rules of fiction writing. My next few posts will be a combination of my memories of my Peace Corps experience in Kazakhstan and what I am learning about writing narrative nonfiction. I will be guided by Story Craft by Jack Hart and the Grand Rapids writers group I joined this summer.
Today I am sharing a short piece on Narration I wrote for an online conference sponsored by members of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers). I used ideas from a textbook for a class I taught and ideas I found through internet research. It will be interesting (for me, at least) to see if today’s perceptions will change with tomorrow’s wisdom. Stay with me, please, on this journey.
Narration in fiction is the way the chosen narrator tells the story to the reader whenever characters are not telling their own stories (through dialogue).
I. A Strong Narrative Voice
The narrative voice is critical to any work of fiction, and it is probably one of the most overlooked areas of focus for new writers. Vague narrators, uncertain tense, and an unclear voice are all the result of poor narration. A great writer will have total control over his/her narrative, the voice that guides the reader through the story. As Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages, says: “Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break of inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant note in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. The easiest way to ensure you have a clear narrative voice is to write in the first person. This makes your narrator an obvious character, and thereby ensures that, as a writer, you will be thinking about that development.
However, first person isn’t appropriate for all fiction, and it has its limitations, since it ties the work to a single perspective. For third person narratives, the key point is to ensure that the narrator is actually defined as clearly as any other character, regardless of how visible or invisible you want that narrator to be. Any straying from the main narrative voice or mistake in consistency can be a disaster, unless your control and experience are extensive and vast.
* A good narrative voice is generally consistent, and doesn’t switch from first (“I”), to second (“you”) to third (“he or she”) person, unless the author is doing it quite deliberately, and it takes great skill to pull off switching narration. In most cases, switching person will destroy a story.
More subtle, but equally important is the need to keep the narrative viewpoint consistent. It can be hard work to develop a single viewpoint, and using multiple viewpoints can be complex, with the need for careful, well-crafted breaks between viewpoints and a really clear, plot-oriented reason for doing so. The reader must have a good sense of the narrative voice, including why that voice sees things the way it does, and whose perspective it is taking.
Some tricks to help develop the narrative voice include the following:
- Read authors with exceptional narrative control. Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes are among the very best authors for narrative control. Their novels tend to be fuelled by great narrators and characterization, and reading work like theirs will help develop the writer’s ear for what works in narration.
- Try re-writing a piece of your own work from a different viewpoint, and noting the effect. You may actually improve the piece, but if not, you will at least begin to understand the impact.
- Try creating a profile of your narrator. Write out his/her “back story.” Put together a number of paragraphs on his/her life, motivations, and fears.
- Take a paragraph from any great writer’s work. Try a classic like Dickens, Eliot, or Joyce, or some other well respected novelist, and take note of the narrative voice. Now write out a paragraph on the narrator. Describe his/her motivations, past, and the hints that the writing conveys on the narrator’s involvement in the overall story.
II. Narration Examples (more…)